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High On Life Review

Funny but not in a ha ha way

High on Life is holistically unpleasant. It’s something of an achievement in and of itself that this first-person comedy shooter is so thoroughly inept at executing both the core tenets of its premise, let alone the dozen other transgressions that follow over the course of its eight-ish hour runtime. The game is ostensibly a love letter to the comedic stylings of Rick and Morty co-creator and star Justin Roiland, who himself has co-founded High on Life developers Squanch Games. To cut this off at the pass, I’m unapologetically a big fan of his work— Rick and Morty houses some surprisingly sincere family drama amid its chaotic, sci-fi trappings and is generally pretty damn funny. In the absence of a tightly crafted television script though, Roiland’s signature rambling festers. Instead, High on Life sifts this unique style of comedy through a rote shooter that could be a cute homage to old-school licensed titles if it wasn’t so concerned with letting you know how little it cares.

You occupy the shoes of a blank slate teenager whipped away from Earth during a violent alien invasion. The G3 Cartel, a galaxy-wide criminal organisation, have discovered that humans can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette, causing a mass incursion that kicks off in your non-descript suburban street. As chaos descends, you and your sister stumble upon the game’s schtick, a talking gun known as a Gatlian. Wise-cracking Roiland in hand, you set off across the stars to enlist the help of a washed-up bounty hunter and track down the heads of the cartel. Operating out of a hub city, High on Life alternates between two bounty missions of your choice and more scripted sequences chasing upgrades and hitting narrative beats.

Ooh I’m an image caption on a website. G-g-guess you’re really reading this huh? Just sitting there reading this image caption? Loser.

High on Life’s core loop settles in quick, a clunky and unrefined set of gameplay mechanics cobbled together with about as much finesse as it likely took to pen the umpteenth hole joke in the game. Every way in which you need to engage with the game feels compromised by sluggish input and unsatisfying feedback, lending the experience a slick and unresponsive feel. Despite its colourful exterior and bombastic language, High on Life’s small arsenal of chatty death machines only rarely offer more than limp combat and minimal platforming. Each Gatlian has a ‘trick shot’ mechanic that can be used in combat as an alt-fire or while out and about in the world for exploration. Kenny the pistol can fire off a glob shot to knock down platforms, others can create time bubbles or even spit out babies to crawl through pipes and open doors for you.

The Gatlians are an inspired idea on paper, sentient weapons that have a say in when you pull their triggers, and the variety of comedic voice actors deployed to bring them to life should be a home run. In practice though, these guns are an unfulfilling and limiting combat experience, as the game effectively traps you with a pistol for its opening hours and gates its best Gatlian until the final act. You’ll find your usual variants, like the SMG or shotgun, but floaty aiming and a lack of impact to shots make combat segments a slog. This is exacerbated by the game’s small roster of enemies, each as visually uninteresting and damage spongy as the last.

Oh shit, another image caption? These guys just keep coming, huh? I bet Kotaku has better image captions than this. 

The Gatlians are backed up by the game’s relatively successful melee option, Knifey. This talking knife can be used to chip enemy armour and doubles as a grappling hook, both mechanics feeling the best of what’s on offer here. Using Knifey to whip around a planet or boss arena is effortless and the closest thing to fun I found in the game. First-person platforming is rarely enjoyable though so while I didn’t overly care for High on Life’s awkward jumping segments, it’s not the first or last game to stumble at this hurdle. Exploration is also hindered by the game’s surprisingly meagre handful of locations, primarily consisting of three planets and a smattering of smaller environments that could be interesting if it weren’t for the general lack of art direction.

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High on Life is crisp looking, undoubtedly a shiny and new product, but beyond the initial gleam is a poorly sketched sci-fi world. It’s no single thing that undoes the game aesthetically, just a quiet death by a thousand Knifey cuts – perfunctory alien planets of ‘colourful’ forests and neon-lit grungy slums, a never-ending army of bland plasticine NPCs, starkly realistic human models next to them with no semblance of cohesion or intentional tension. Underpinning this is a score that oscillates between forgettable and frustrating, sporting one of the most grating combat tracks I’ve heard in a dog’s age. Much like the gameplay, these things alone aren’t enough to register but collectively, High on Life is no more fun to see or hear than it is to play.

I-I-I think this is it, no more captions, man, we did it, we’re free. What are we gonna do now? Who do you wanna be without these captions in your life? Jeez I dunno, but I’m so glad we went on this journey together. Y-you’re my best friend and I couldn’t have done it without you.

Nor does it care to be. Or does it? High on Life’s writing and general tone manages to be insufferably smug and self-consciously pawing all at once. This palate-defying achievement manifests in countless ways, from shrug-worthy to genuinely disappointing. The headline issue is that High on Life cannot stop reminding you that you’re playing a video game and gosh isn’t that all a bit silly? Oh, you’re committing acts of violence? Oh, you’re going through another tunnel? Oh, you need to find X or do Y? Man, don’t you look like an idiot for being made to do these menial tasks? But it only knows how to walk up to the line and point at it, never bold or creative enough to find a way to step across and grapple with the exact dull gameplay loops it traps you in.

More loosely, the game just has a lot of writing, and it will never not take a chance to subject you to it – often you’ll be simply standing on the spot for long stretches of time as inane dialogue unfolds before you. You can chip in from time to time, answering prompts as your sister experiences a sex drama or a random NPC shills cum your way, but you are effectively a passenger on this long-arse journey. Character dialogue plays over other dialogue, sometimes even their own; combat segments are lamented by your Gatlian, noting how unfun this whole ordeal is – oh, and the casual homophobia is a real nice chaser.

Final Thoughts

There’s more I could talk about in High on Life. A rudimentary upgrade system for your Gatlians, the celebrity cameos, the endless references to better games, the broken and cluttered HUD navigational system, the unearned cloying ending. But High on Life is so exhaustingly glib and mechanically unremarkable that to engage with it critically is to already have lost the game of chicken it’s playing with you.

Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher

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High On Life Review
D.I.R.E
An unsatisfying shooter brought even lower by an exhausting and all-encompassing script, High on Life can’t commit to its satire or ideas long enough to do anything of value.
The Good
Snappy melee combat
Grappling hook works well
The Bad
Unsatisfying core combat
Relentlessly unfunny
Dull art direction
Exhausting
3
RUBBISH
  • Squanch Games
  • Squanch Games
  • Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
  • December 13, 2022

High On Life Review
D.I.R.E
An unsatisfying shooter brought even lower by an exhausting and all-encompassing script, High on Life can’t commit to its satire or ideas long enough to do anything of value.
The Good
Snappy melee combat
Grappling hook works well
The Bad
Unsatisfying core combat
Relentlessly unfunny
Dull art direction
Exhausting
3
RUBBISH
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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